The Cost of Certainty

By  |  March 13, 2018
“Something tells me she didn’t look back” (2006), by Liza Ryan. Courtesy of the artist and Kayne Griffin Cororan gallery “Something tells me she didn’t look back” (2006), by Liza Ryan. Courtesy of the artist and Kayne Griffin Cororan gallery

Exploring Evangelicalism In Trump’s America

On three acres, near the top of Candlers Mountain in Lynchburg, Virginia, there’s a wide clear-cut space. Where trees once stood, white gravel has been poured in a perfect circle over the clay. In the center, low shrubs flanked by dark maroon pebbles form the letters LU. It’s called the Mountain Top Monogram, and you can see it from the highway, from the nearby shopping center, from most of the city below. You can see it for miles. LU stands for Liberty University. Founded by the Reverend Jerry Falwell in 1971 as Lynchburg Baptist College, the school now bills itself as the world’s largest Christian university: “Training Champions for Christ.” In practice, this means that Liberty has more than fourteen thousand residential students on a seven-thousand-acre campus and another nearly hundred thousand students enrolled in more than two hundred eighty online programs. It has a law school, a college of osteopathic medicine, and, of course, a divinity school. It has a ski slope (covered year-round in Snowflex synthetic snow), more than fifty miles of dedicated trail space, a skating rink, and a movie theater. By every metric, Liberty is vast and steadily expanding. Expansion is part of the point. The school’s doctrinal statement affirms that religious institutions are responsible for “carry[ing] out the commission to evangelize, to teach, and to administer the ordinances of believer’s baptism and the Lord’s table.” To spread the word of God, you have to grow.

 

I grew up on the campus of a little secular women’s college about twenty-five miles north of Lynchburg. My parents are English professors and my family is not a churchgoing one. My father has a Louisiana ex-Catholic boy’s love of saints and all their strangeness, and my mother has impeccable manners and a Protestant work ethic that never exhausts itself—but that’s about as far as they go with religion. In our household, Liberty was shorthand for a particular brand of Fundamentalist Southern Baptism, heavy on bigotry and brimstone and short on nuance, intellect, and kindness. When the university razed the side of Candlers Mountain to install their logo in 2007, we were horrified at what we saw—frankly, what I still see—as the lack of environmental responsibility and the narcissism inherent in the gesture. When I told my mother on the phone that I was planning to open this essay with a description of the monogram, she sighed audibly. “That thing,” she said, “will be there forever.”

There wasn’t much to do in my one-stoplight hometown, and in junior high I spent a lot of afternoons in the Lynchburg Barnes & Noble, where the Christian literature selection dwarfed the poetry shelf and the YA section bulged with dystopic series set in the aftermath of the Rapture. Liberty students hung around the bookstore café with notebooks and laptops or loafed in the overstuffed armchairs near the back. Sometimes we made trivial conversation. They’d bend their heads at me in the manner of teenagers being kind to slightly younger kids, and ask my name and whether I was from around there. Eventually, the conversation would almost always make its way around to a question about where my family went to church, and they’d look genuinely sad when I told them we didn’t. Mostly, it never went much beyond that. They’d tell me I could come to Thomas Road Baptist Church anytime, and then I’d drift back to whatever trashy novel about a maladjusted teenager dying of cancer I was currently reading in the aisle between bookshelves. 

Once, though, a girl with an eyebrow piercing that matches one I have now, fifteen years later, kept me talking a beat longer. She bent down until our faces were level, put a hand on my wheelchair tire, and told me that I really ought to come to church. It’ll heal your pain, she said, her voice sure and imploring. I don’t remember what I did then. Probably I made some noncommittal noise and moved away to another corner of the store. I didn’t know whether the healing she spoke about was physical or only emotional and spiritual, but I knew that, regardless, she saw something she thought needed healing in my disabled body. I’d already developed enough of a political consciousness to call that ableism, and I’d had enough experience with people who saw me as damaged to feel indignant and hurt. However, in that moment, I was also jealous of her certainty, which, when she held her face close to mine, felt so present and steady I could nearly touch it. She knew what mattered. Where to go for comfort and for steadying. The God she believed in was knowable and reachable. A force that healed. 

It is this sense of palpable certainty and comfort that I still find strangely magnetic in the Evangelical faith even as I bristle at the politics that often accompany it. To evangelize requires a level of conviction and assurance I envied as a teenager, and sometimes still catch myself yearning for now. I spent a good part of my early years ricocheting between the hospital and the physical therapist’s office: one surgery, or casting procedure, or set of heavy plastic leg braces after another, all designed to try and correct the damage done by a neurological disorder that causes my muscles to contract constantly, setting me perpetually off balance. For years, I clunked around in various unwieldy orthopedic contraptions, moved slowly, repeated the same rote, painful exercises: lift your leg two inches off the ground, and lay it down again. Again. Again. In a different world, this kind of meditative work would have been the thing to teach me equanimity. Instead, all it did was infuriate me and engender a rabid desire to do more, to move faster, to spill out over the bounds of my own body—outrun it, leave it behind. After surgery, I’d shut myself in my room for hours until I learned to dress myself again. Lock the door so no one could come in to help. I beat the hell out of a punching bag in the child psychiatrist’s office. I wailed. I wanted what I wanted, and I wanted it now: a cookie, a dog, a different body that did not hurt and could climb a tree. I did not come easily or gently to anything: not to patience, or devotion, or gratitude, or the thing I have learned to call faith. Everything about my world shook. 

 

Jerry Falwell was only twenty-two when, in 1956, he founded Thomas Road Baptist Church in his hometown of Lynchburg. Falwell’s father and grandfather weren’t churchgoers. In fact, his grandfather was a vocal atheist. But his mother’s unwavering belief seems to have been enough to bring him to God. Writers love to quote a line in Falwell’s autobiography about getting saved as a teenager: “I accepted the mystery of God’s salvation. I didn’t doubt it then. I haven’t doubted it to this day.” According to an old church pamphlet, Falwell, who once aspired to a professional baseball career, “rejected the call of the St. Louis Cardinals and accepted the call of God”; he went to Baptist Bible College in Missouri and then came home to start his thirty-five-member church. He had an instinct for evangelizing, and he immediately began to broadcast his sermons on a radio program called The Old-Time Gospel Hour. Within six months, they were also being broadcast on local Virginia television. 

Falwell died in 2007, and his church now has more than twenty-four thousand members. His television program has gone into international syndication, and you can stream the sermons his son Jonathan gives straight from the church’s website. The main sanctuary looks like an arena. It has stadium seating, and the stage that holds the pulpit is outfitted for light shows and concerts. The church has satellite campuses in the nearby cities of Danville and Roanoke, as well as an entirely separate chapel where services are conducted in Spanish. There’s a reason they call it a megachurch. Falwell’s certainty has built a ministry on the scale of the God it champions, the God of Jeremiah 33:3, who answers the believers who call to him and shows them “great and mighty things” they did not know before. 

Thomas Road Baptist, Liberty University, and Liberty Christian Academy, a K–12 day school founded in the 1960s, form a kind of trinity, the three pillars of an Evangelical ministry in Lynchburg. One proceeds from the other like the Holy Spirit from the Son, and the Son from the Father, all three “one in essence but distinct in person and function.” Each piece runs separately but is designed to rear, shape, and eventually sustain generations of Evangelicals whose belief is as stable as the institutions themselves and who become engines of the church’s expansion, raising their children in what the faith calls a “culture of prayer” and a “lifestyle of worship” with a “passion for sharing” designed to reach the “uttermost parts of the earth.” Marketing materials from both Liberty and Thomas Road Baptist Church quote Romans 10:14: 

How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? 

Believers must be committed, they remind you, to “intentionally developing relationships that ‘earn’ . . . the right to actively share the Gospel.” 

For Falwell, this commitment to spreading the word of God always went beyond religion; it was explicitly cultural and political. In 1979 he founded the Moral Majority, an organization designed to mobilize the Christian Right, and Evangelical voters specifically, to influence American politics. The issues on which they campaigned, as much as they were in some sense indicative of the political landscape in the 1980s, will look familiar to anyone paying attention to politics today. They promoted what they called a “traditional version of family life,” which meant opposing any state recognition of “homosexual acts,” advocating for the prohibition of abortion even in cases of rape and incest, and opposing the Equal Rights Amendment. Structured to tackle issues on local, state, and national levels, they advocated for Christian prayer in public schools and financially backed initiatives designed to market conservative Christianity to nonbelievers. Though the Moral Majority would formally dissolve before 1990, Falwell never really gave up its aims, and a few years before his death, he revived it, this time calling it the Moral Majority Coalition, its central aims and oppositions much the same. 

Certainty has an ugly side. Although he’d recant the view in later years, in the 1950s and ’60s Jerry Falwell was an unapologetic segregationist, and Liberty Christian Academy was initially formed in response to court-mandated integration; the student body is still overwhelmingly white. Falwell was known for his venomous anti-gay tirades, and the version of America he sought, both spiritually and politically, was designed to make little room for anyone who didn’t think exactly like him. 

But what has always interested me about Falwell and his many disciples is a phenomenon the journalist Kevin Roose describes in his 2009 book The Unlikely Disciple about his experience of enrolling as a student at Liberty despite not being a believer. “I honestly think he believes every word he preaches,” Roose writes of Falwell, “and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he really does stay awake at night worrying about the homosexual agenda, the evils of abortion and the imminent spread of liberalism. He really does think America needs to be saved.” 

From my own position in the world, the politics Falwell espoused, and the ones his son Jerry Falwell Jr. continues to trumpet now as president of Liberty University, are repugnant and clearly damaging in their unyielding-ness, in their judgment, in the narrow kind of life they seem willing to sanction as beautiful, useful, or good. But what do we do with the fact that, at least in some measure, these politics arise out of a real wellspring of conviction: a love for the God you know has saved you, and a fervent fear that every man and woman you don’t manage to reach is lost to that grace? Falwell’s Evangelicalism asserts that “the return of Christ for all believers is imminent” and that, when it happens, “the saved, having been raised, will live forever in heaven in fellowship with God.” The unsaved will be “judged according to their works and separated forever from God in hell.” Falwell wouldn’t have called his beliefs (political or otherwise) judgmental. Judgment is the territory of God. But what else are you to do but be unyielding when the eternal fate of every nonbeliever rests on your shoulders? 

Much has been written, some of it quite compellingly, by outsiders like Roose “infiltrating” Liberty to paint a picture of Evangelical America, its leaders and its youth. And perhaps even more has been made, in recent years, of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s early, vocal support of Donald Trump, who spoke at Liberty’s forty-fourth commencement last May. But, if I’m telling the truth, these kinds of tell-alls about Evangelical America don’t interest me much. Nor does Falwell Jr.’s insistent endorsement of the president’s agenda. Because Trump’s behavior so blatantly conflicts with biblical teaching, Falwell Jr.’s support just feels to me like complicity in the service of power and of his own business interests as Liberty expands. Their political marriage seems clearly rooted not in faith, but in pragmatism: the polar opposite of Evangelicalism’s necessarily uncompromising moral certainty, and the God it insists is real. 

I’ve struggled mightily with my own belief in God, and with its accompanying relationship to religious institutions, and so I am interested in how those at Liberty do, or don’t, make their peace with Trump, and with Falwell’s vocal support of him. How their faith—their certainty—plays into this. Evangelicals may be certain of what perfection looks like, but we all have to make our way forward in an imperfect world. 

 

This is where I tell you that, in graduate school, after many years of resisting my own faith, of flitting between church services from many denominations, and of attending Mass without fully participating or speaking to anyone, I converted to Catholicism. The truth is that I believe, with a fierceness I can’t quantify, and in a way I have no articulate explanation for, that people have souls, that none of us is an accident, and that we are not unattended or alone. I believe that we’re all riven from something greater than ourselves. This notion—that being riven is a place of grace and potential—has a particular urgency for me, both as someone whose body has been literally rent and re-sewn again and again by the gloved hands of surgeons working at her stubborn muscles and her bowing bones, and as someone whose identical twin died when we were infants, too small to outlast our early, hurried coming. My body is mapped with visible scars, and the thing I’ve learned to call my soul has a raw, ragged margin where I was once tethered to my sister. One single egg split into two of us and in her dying we were split again. I miss her with the kind of vague, omnipresent ache you can only have for something you have known exclusively as absence, but also with an intense specificity that has no rational cause. 

So much about my faith is mysterious to me, and all I know is that, when I participate in Mass, I feel like a better version of myself. Closer to God and closer to whole. The ground steadies underneath my feet. Most strict Catholics would call me a Cafeteria Catholic: content to accept the parts of the theology and the liturgy that are important to me, while leaving off my tray the parts of the Church’s politics that don’t always cleanly align with my own convictions. And it’s true that I go to Mass and I take Communion while advocating for gay marriage and being staunchly pro-choice—certain that life inside the womb is real from its earliest beginnings, and also that we have no business legislating abortion when there are all kinds of deeply complex reasons, both individual and systemic, that someone might not be able or ready or willing to be a mother, or even to carry a child. I’ve made my peace with the tensions there, even when they aren’t easy. I call myself a Catholic, and mean it, both when I’m proud of the Church and when I’m embarrassed by it. I believe in the God at the heart of it, even when I quarrel with the way people interpret the theology or want to carry it out. It’s also true that, lately, I haven’t wanted to go to church. I’ve been hollowed out and uselessly furious at all the people using Christianity as some kind of excuse for hatred, and abuse, and rabid fear; pretending all faith doesn’t have a deep and essential common denominator; ignoring the fact that the scripture they profess to hold so sacred models over and over again just how essential it is to welcome the stranger, embrace the foreigner, feed the hungry, and be a force of justice and peace. I’ve written a little about my faith, but my language for it is still nebulous and inchoate, my hold on it still new. And, often, in the last year, I confess it has felt all but gone. I haven’t known what to pray for, felt much beyond a void. Sometimes I go to Mass out of some faint muscle-memory and the sense that, if I don’t, I’ll just sit in my apartment scrolling through headlines. Part of what I’m hunting, in my inquiry about Liberty and Evangelicalism, is some sort of understanding of how to hold on to your certain faith even when the way it’s put into practice feels damningly human and flawed. 

 

In August, Mother Jones published an article about a coalition of Liberty alumni organizing to return their diplomas in protest of Falwell Jr.’s support of Trump, which held steadfast even during the bipartisan backlash in response to his egregious comments after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville last summer. A young alumna told reporter Becca Andrews that Trump’s behavior was “beyond the pale,” and that a “Christian university is called to be morally correct and ethically correct, to show kindness to the hurting, and to condemn wrongdoing where necessary.” These outraged Liberty alumni still identify as Christians, even Evangelicals, but they no longer want to claim an affiliation with Liberty as long as Falwell Jr. claims an affiliation with Trump. 

This sort of distancing is rare; more than eighty percent of Evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016’s election. In the voting precinct on Liberty’s campus, that number was almost eighty-five percent. When I ask Karen Swallow Prior, who teaches English at Liberty, if she thinks this number is indicative of students’ widespread excitement about Trump, she says no. We speak by Skype and, for much of our conversation, her two large, sweet-faced dogs are playing in the background, cooped up inside by Virginia’s biting January cold snap. Though I can’t see the winter out her window, I know exactly what it looks like: the rust-colored ground hardened and shining with frost. It’s the winter of my childhood. Prior and I have never met but, when we talk, I feel an instant kind of familiarity born of a common geography and shared intellectual interests. Prior is both sharp and warm. Like me, she talks with her hands. 

As a scholar, Prior specializes in the eighteenth-century British novel, but she’s used to being asked to speak on record about Evangelicalism in contemporary America. She’s a Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a Senior Fellow with Liberty’s own Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement. Her faculty profile on the university’s website describes her as being drawn to early British literature in part for its emphasis on “philosophy, ethics, aesthetics, [and] community.” 

These issues are all at the forefront for Prior. She’s been a vocal critic of Trump from inside the Evangelical faith, writing regularly about politics and culture for Christianity Today and a variety of other publications, and posting articles on Facebook that sometimes yield comment threads more than a hundred entries long. She thinks Liberty students’ support of Trump mostly indicates that he was the one of two bad options they could bear to vote for. Students voted, she said, because, as an institution, Liberty makes the importance of voter turn-out clear, and they view it as a responsibility, but in general she sees them as disenchanted with American politics. After the election, they largely seemed neither vindicated nor troubled, eager to move on and to live out their faith in ways they see as more immediate and effective. 

Though Prior says she is “mad at everyone” who got us to the point where we were choosing between Trump and Clinton, she has a lot of sympathy for Evangelicals who voted for the president, people like her own parents. She reasons that they feel like Trump’s behavior is bad but that, really, “everything is corrupt and base and crass,” and by “everything” she means the whole of the culture around us. She tells me that she and her father love watching Modern Family together in the evenings, but that they often cringe at much of the show’s overt depiction of sexual behavior. Recalling it, she shudders visibly. I brace, readying for her to draw particular attention to the fact that one of the show’s central marriages is between two men, but instead she points out the relationship between the family patriarch and his second wife: a very beautiful, much younger woman who wears high heels and a lot of lipstick. I want to push her, here. Isn’t voting for Trump just making the debasement of American culture worse? It is, and Prior knows it. But it hits me all at once that I feel like Modern Family is a deeply wholesome show: Every episode I’ve seen centers on some theme of family togetherness, the importance of hard work, the reasons why it’s important to be honest with your partner. It’s sweet, and goofy, and warm. I try to imagine feeling so outside of what I see as “American culture” that I find this show, even in moments, offensive and crass. I can’t. This whole discussion seems like rationalizing an unconscionable choice to me. But Prior seems to think many Evangelicals, especially older ones, feel mainstream culture as a kind of onslaught, that there are faithful Evangelicals who voted for Trump, utterly wearied by the culture around them, thinking: At least he’s a successful businessman, thinking: Lord, there’s no way he can make anything worse. 

Prior is a contributor to the new anthology Still Evangelical? Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning. In her essay, she identifies the presence and cultivation of an individual social conscience as one of the hallmarks of Evangelicalism. Yet she sees Liberty students as largely uninterested in politics as a primary ground on which to express this social conscience, or live out their faith. I press her on why; it has to be more than just the absence of an ideal candidate. In response, she pauses and tilts her head slightly up toward the ceiling, a tic I’m learning means she’s searching not just for the right language in which to express herself, but for the exact nature of her thoughts. First, she makes an argument I’ve heard others make about political engagement and millennials: essentially, that it isn’t immediate enough. Today’s Liberty students, she points out, were raised in the age of social media, and they’re used to their interactions with celebrities, or people in power, being instantaneous and informal, modulated by Facebook or Instagram. They post a comment, someone replies. Prior tells me that, just recently, she was reading a letter to the editor in her local paper in which someone was lamenting having to fill out an official form on Virginia congressman Bob Goodlatte’s website, provide their contact information, and wait for an aide to be in touch. For the letter writer, she says, the act felt “hard and distant”—too formal, too slow. They wanted a more immediate way to be in touch with people in power. 

It’s only after we discuss the ways that social media seem at odds with the pace of formative political and cultural change that Prior alights on a second, more intriguing theory. “Evangelicals are famous,” she says, laughing, for commonly asking one another: “Can you name the day and the hour you were saved?” According to the doctrine Prior believes in, salvation is instantaneous and immediate. Evangelicalism is a faith that de-emphasizes spiritual formation, and even good works, in favor of a single moment in which you accept the Lord as your savior and are brought into the family of God. Once you’re saved, you can’t be unsaved, and you’re brought into heaven by “faith alone.” 

For Evangelical believers, the most important decision in one’s life—in some ways, the only choice that really matters—occurs abruptly, in the direct presence of God and other people, and then can’t be undone. Salvation is necessarily instantaneous and immutable, fundamentally unlike the glacial back and forth of politics, the way power changes hands and people change sides, all of it somehow both infuriatingly slow and unfathomably small in contrast to the Kingdom of God. 

These thoughts are new for Prior; she acknowledges that she’s never before tried to verbalize them in relationship to politics. In talking, we arrive at the understanding that there’s a way in which she imagines many of today’s Liberty students feel somehow doubly removed from politics, alienated both generationally and by virtue of the timing and scale of their faith. Her students, she says, still remain deeply committed to the Evangelical ideals of witness and commitment to social service and change, but they want to enact that change on a one-to-one basis: in ministry, through business, through the arts, in person-to-person conversations in bookstores. They want to see the Kingdom of God spread from individual to individual, watching the instant of salvation light like a candle flame in one life, then another. Another life changed, and another soul saved, no matter who is sitting in the Oval Office. 

When I ask her how she copes with being part of a faith tradition she feels is riddled today with so many “foibles” (her word) or being publicly associated with a university that has a presence on America’s stage as a bastion of Trump and his politics, Prior talks about reminding herself daily of both the fundamental truths she believes in and of how much better things are now than they were a few hundred years ago, “when church leaders and government leaders could burn . . . torture, enslave people at will.” On the one hand this feels like a flimsy and convenient rationalization: Even if Trump’s behavior is awful at least we’re not burning people alive anymore. But on the other hand, I understand on some emotional level what she means: I’ve always liked how the Church makes me feel small, my own body and life dwarfed by God’s scale, and by the fabric of the long history of the Church unfurled before me. I resist the urge to point out to Prior that this is what I love most about being Catholic, the sense that it ties me to a tradition that goes back, and back, and back to something sturdy. Multiple times, Prior uses the same metaphor: “Once you’re born, you can’t change your birth parents.” Once you’re part of the Family of God, there’s no getting lost, getting abandoned, or getting out. “I’m comfortable with conflict, and with tensions,” she says. She knows that no matter what tradition she was practicing she’d feel those and acknowledge them. She believes what she believes, and she’s certain about it. This is a steadying force. I wonder if it’s also a limiting one.

 

When I go home to visit my parents in Virginia over the holidays, I never go to church because my parents don’t. Asking them to take me feels like an imposition, though I know they’d agree in an instant. Instead, my father and I sit on the couch with our laptops and trade recommendations of new music we’ve discovered in the past several months, or my mother and I have lunch at a nearby winery and discuss the classes she’ll teach in the upcoming semester. Outside the tasting room’s tall glass windows, the Blue Ridge Mountains are purple in the distance, a whole slate of uninterrupted sky above and around them. Looking at that vista I always think: Something made this. It’s a view that makes me believe in God in that instinctual way I have no language for. Like a reflex. Like the way my lungs balloon when I breathe. Driving by Liberty’s campus, with its brick buildings, one after the other, expressionless and vast, I feel the opposite: vacant and hollow. All I think is: I don’t like what’s here. 

But, for Prior, God is profoundly present on those grounds. She feels free to do her job at Liberty in a way she knows she wouldn’t at a secular university. She can teach whatever texts she likes, from Jane Eyre to Fun Home and, to hear her describe it, the university always has her back in the event that a parent complains about her choice of texts. (She doesn’t feel like Liberty’s day-to-day operations are influenced by Falwell Jr.’s politics, except maybe when it comes to who speaks at the school’s regular convocation.) But Prior believes there’s a divine and scriptural truth at the bottom of everything her students study, everything about the world. And the fact that her students share this foundation, and the university supports it, makes all the difference. She’s taught at secular schools before, where she describes feeling alienated and judged for the nature and extent of her faith. But it’s more than that. The difference, she says, between discussing a text while centering the biblical and spiritual foundation of the issues it addresses, and analyzing it without a shared spiritual focus, is like the difference between looking at a dead moth pinned to a cork board and a live one, beating its wings and breathing in the light. Her students, she explained, trust her explicitly because they know she shares their faith, and she can push them to interrogate their assumptions and even their politics (or lack thereof) in a way they wouldn’t tolerate if they didn’t share that common Evangelical foundation. 

Prior rarely prays with her students in class, but she describes one seminar group being so collectively moved by the Cynthia Ozick story “The Shawl” that, instead of formally closing class when the bell rang, she just quietly asked them to pray together. I imagine them in one of Liberty’s huge brick classroom buildings. Several students cried, she tells me. She nearly tears up recounting it. “That was, like, the most powerful moment in all my years of teaching,” she says, and she thinks it couldn’t have happened like that anywhere else. I have to admit she’s probably right. 

 

Here’s what happens in “The Shawl”: A woman on a forced march to a Nazi concentration camp, cold as the “coldness of hell,” conceals her baby in a shawl that, even as she herself starves, sustains the infant. The baby sucks the fabric as her mother’s milk dries up, and, miraculously survives. Eventually, though, an older child— desperate, and jealous, and cold—snatches the shawl away and the baby begins to howl. When a guard discovers the baby, he picks her up and throws her into an electric fence, where she hangs “like a butterfly touching a silver vine.” Voices in the air tell the mother to run to her child, but instead she stands rooted, sucking on the recovered shawl. She knows that if she moves, she’ll die. 

When I imagine Prior and her students moved to silence, then to prayer, bent over Ozick’s story, two things strike me at once. The first is that, though Ozick is Jewish, the story is one about the very kind of mystical salvation Evangelicals believe in. In the darkest moment, in a place like hell, a baby is sustained by something as simple as a shawl imbued with an inexplicable power much bigger than its materiality. The second is that it’s also a story about how people—mortal, and fallen, and flawed—ruin that salvation in horrifying ways. With their need; with their selfishness; with a hatred so large and violent it turns infants into insects, burned alive. 

When I look at Trump, I see hatred this big, and obvious, and destructive. His politics are costing people their dignity, and their safety, and their lives, a hatred that threatens to dwarf whatever shawl of faith I’m holding in my hands. Certainty is dangerous if it allows you to turn your head away from such destruction, to endorse it even passively. And yet it’s true that I often bow my head in prayer when moved by stories or by suffering. It’s true that I want nothing more than to be sure that God will answer. 


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Molly McCully Brown is the author of The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, named one of the “Top Books of 2017” by the New York Times. She is a 2018 United States Artists Fellow, and the Jeff Baskin Writers Fellow at the Oxford American.